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The Humanization of Workplace Culture (1950-present)

Published first on Medium.

By Chelsea Howard, Founder of Drift Employer Brand

I’ve been spending a lot of time diving deep into culture theory. I want to know more about where the concept of workplace culture came from and how it’s changed over time. Most importantly, I want to round out my understanding of how we can evolve our understanding of what makes a great culture based on tangible evidence from past attempts to define and measure it.

Through the process of my research, I keep being reminded of this quote from the famous writer and philosopher, George Santayana:

“Those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it.”

It’s a well-known quote with many applications. I tend to think that understanding history is one important component of change. After seeking to understand, we have a choice — continue in the same well-worn, often comfortable path or find a way to bring the best parts of the past into the future; into a new way of seeing, being and doing.

Since the 1950s, when Elliot Jaques first introduced the idea of workplace culture through his study of factory workers in Great Britain, there have been two main methods of defining and describing culture that appear over and over again.

I think of them as “Cultural Categorization”and “Cultural Components.”

Cultural Categorization

Theorists who engaged in these models created descriptions and rational for typifying cultures. Many also ascribed certain cultures to specific industries. For example, between the ’70s and the ’90s, Charles Handy and Roger Harrison popularized the idea that there are four types of cultures: Power, Role, Task and Person.

This might be a controversial opinion, but I find this to be the less effective method of the two when it comes to understanding and strategizing culture. No matter how profoundly close a culture is to the prescribed category, it still feels like an oversimplification, and a short-sighted one at that. Cultural categorization also seems to lend itself to more bias. The inflexibility of relegating a company culture that is formed and influenced each day by hundreds of employees and leaders to a single category leaves no room for nuance, complexity and support for inclusivity. Deal and Kennedy’s theory is an excellent illustration of this. In 1982, they came up with another 4-pronged culture approach — 1. Work-hard, play-hard culture. 2. Tough-guy macho culture 3. Process Culture 4. Be-the-company culture.

Now, I have no doubt that all of these mentalities have their merits in terms of driving business results. But, the language and description is almost staggeringly masculine, alarmingly combative and each culture is framed in terms of its risk and reward to the company’s bottom-line. We now know that this is not the way the majority of employees feel successful. And, within the rigid confines of these four culture types, there is little room for discussion of employee wellbeing, sense of belonging, feeling of connection to the organization or inspiring leadership — all elements that are critical to the sustainment of culture.

This isn’t to say that Cultural Categorization hasn’t led to some pretty incredible revelations in culture theory. I loved learning about Robert A. Cooke’s vision of constructive cultures (1987). It was a really interesting application of Maslow’s Hierarchy and the “Self-Actualizing” & “Humanistic-Encouraging” elements of a constructive culture land very close to some of the values that are widely accepted now as critical levers to sustain culture in a post-pandemic world.

Adam Grant categorizes cultures in his book Give and Take, basing his culture types on the norms of reciprocity at an organization. This was an encouraging move away from ‘winner-take-all’, competitive and results-focused cultural categorization and toward a more enlightened understanding culture as a continual ebb and flow, governed by the way employees and leaders feel invested in each other’s success. A study by Harvard revealed that the ‘giver’ culture was the strongest predictor of group effectiveness.

Cultural Components

This theoretical stream comprises frameworks that are centred on the idea that culture can be observed and described consistently across industries and companies using a common set of interacting parts or elements. These theories pre-suppose that culture is not a set of categories, but an ecosystem.

One of my favourite theorists in this space, Stanley G. Harris created his organizational schemata in 1994. He worked with the concept of a schema as a knowledge structure that employees form from past experiences that influence how they work together and create the culture of an organization. His breakdown is one of the only culture theories that includes a component that could be described as a ‘belonging index’ or “self-in organization schemata” — an employee’s concept of who they are within an organization that goes beyond just their role and takes into account their personality and behaviour.

In 2003, Stephen McGuire created and validated a model of organizational culture that predicts revenue called an Entrepreneurial Organizational Culture (EOC). In this case, the metric associated with a successful culture is the entrepreneurial spirit within, codified through elements like “value creation through innovation and change”, “Doing the right thing”, and “Freedom to grow and to fail” (that last one draws a strong parallel to the sweeping conversation around workplace vulnerability that is happening everyday).

Cultural Humanization

What I’ve gleaned through research and lived experience is that the closer cultural definitions and frameworks get to a real human experience, the more effective they are at enabling organizations to deliver on their promises to employees.

When I say ‘real human experience’, I mean guided by an understanding that priorities shift, goals change and people feel differently depending on circumstances and situation however there are a few things that remain constant when it comes to our professional life. People want to do meaningful work for inspiring leaders with a team they can learn from. After reading this, ask yourself: 1. Do I think of workplace culture in terms of categories of components? 2. What culture category would my organization fall into? 3. What do I believe are the critical components of workplace culture?

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